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How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time

It's not about using every minute, says the 'I Know How She Does It' author

The stressed-out, hair-pulling, kitchen-disaster, screaming-children, sleep-deprived but otherwise successful professional working mom has ventured into trope territory. If you’ve seen the I Don’t Know How She Does It film or read the Allison Pearson novel, you know.

But Laura Vanderkam, author of the new time-management book for women, I Know How She Does It  (see what she did there?) says that depiction is fiction and that she has the data to prove it. She also has advice for other professional women on how they can make the most of their time — and still have a good life.

For her book, subtitled How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time , Vanderkam surveyed 143 women who earned more than $100,000 a year and had at least one child under age 18 living at home and asked them to fill out a week-long log of how they spent their time, in 30-minute intervals. Then she calculated how much time the women worked, slept, spent on leisure time and exercised. (You can get a template to keep your own time-management log at LauraVanderkam.com.)

While these women did put in more hours on the job than working mothers on average, they didn’t work all the time. And they got plenty of sleep and more exercise than most Americans.

Here’s my conversation with Vanderkam, 36, who has four kids, is married to a management consultant and works from home near Philadelphia, Pa. — generally around 50 hours a week:

Next Avenue: A few years ago, The Atlantic’s cover story by Anne-Marie Slaughter called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All stirred up a lot of discussion. Do you think women can have it all?

Vanderkam: I absolutely think they can have it all if you define that by focusing on the basics: having a career, enjoying a happy family and making time for pursuits. Plenty of women and men have it all.

But is it possible to do all that and watch 30 hours of TV a week and clean your house from top to bottom and coach sports teams and have an organic farm providing all your produce needs? Probably not.

Often, these womens’ workweeks are more manageable than you might imagine and they got more sleep than the impression people give.

— Laura Vanderkam

You talk in the book about becoming a “mosaic maker” and say that “having a full life is possible if you place the tiles right.” What do you mean and how can women do that?

When I started having people keep track of time, I gave them spreadsheets with half-hour by half-hour blocks for a week. The first time I did this myself it did seem funny to me to shoehorn my life into cells on a grid. But when I switched my mindset, I found that it looks like a mosaic. I could set the tiles of what I wanted in my life to create an image of what I wanted out of my life.

The interesting thing from what I found in my study is that the women tended to move around their tiles of work and life in interesting ways. Many don’t confine work to their “work hours” and life to their “life hours.” There’s a lot of overlap: about three-quarters of the people did work outside their normal work hours and personal stuff during what appeared to be their core work time. They would read to their preschooler’s class during the day and make up the time at night.

But you don’t believe in using every minute of the day, right?

I don’t. I have a few priorities for work and for my personal time, but not a minute-by-minute schedule. The reason to be mindful of your schedule is it helps you have more fun. If you don’t, it’s easy to let the hours disappear to meaningless leisure time, puttering around the house or watching TV you didn’t mean to watch. The better thing to do is to say to yourself: ‘Where is my leisure time and what do I want to do it with it?’ This can be the difference between getting together with friends and not.

What did the time-block surveys show you?

That often, these women’s workweeks are more manageable than you might imagine and they got more sleep than the impression people give of their lives. Life is not as harried as it’s often portrayed. I was gratified to see that turned out to be the case.

In fact, you write that “high-earning women have more balanced lives than the popular narrative conveys.”

We assume that if women have a big job, they never see their families or if they do, they never sleep or if they sleep, they must do nothing else. That’s the image from the I Don’t Know How She Does It book and movie. That life is a harried death march. And that’s not the case.

We like to tell stories of our stressful moments because they’re darkly entertaining, but the reality is they’re not often the case.

But these women truly are putting in a lot of hours at work.

Forty-four hours of work a week [the average of the women surveyed] is not a short work week; and I didn’t count lunch breaks or commuting time. The average woman in America works thirty-five to thirty-seven hours a week. So these women work more, but not that much more.

And so your advice about this is what?

You can massively limit your earnings power by refusing to take a job with a few extra hours. The difference between a thirty-seven hour a week job and a forty-five hour job may not be as life altering as you think.

The women you surveyed slept seven hours and forty-two minutes a day on average, which is a fair amount, but about an hour less than the average American.

One of the most important findings from this survey is that people do sleep. Sleep is a biological function, it’s not a testament to how important you are. It doesn’t take time, it makes time. Whatever you gain by sleeping an hour less you lose in lack of focus during the day.

The women you surveyed often made time for exercise by engaging in what you call “functional fitness.” What’s that?

That’s when people do things like getting a 20-minute brisk walk to the train station for work. Making a conscious choice to build exercise into your day is harder.

Laura Vanderkam I Know How Author and Book Embed

So you don’t think people should look for a specific time to exercise every day?

Right. People fall into the 24-hour trap, where perfect becomes the enemy of the good. While it’s great to have daily rituals, with a busy life it’s easy to talk yourself out of things to do because you can’t do them every day.

So just pick a few times that work with your schedule, maybe different times of the day during different days of the week. You don’t have to exercise seven days a week; exercising four days a week is markedly better than what most people do.

You also recommend planning your weekend activities in advance. Why?

It helps you have a better weekend, especially if you have a family, because the weekend can get eaten up by chores. Plan fun stuff for the weekend by Wednesday; otherwise, your weekend will disappear into just things you have to do. Even if you don’t have kids, it’s easy to say: ‘I have to get the car inspected or get an estimate for our lawn work.’ The next thing you know, the whole weekend has turned into that.

I believe fun is important, particularly if you have a busy life.

Let’s talk about what some of the women you surveyed did to make the most of their time. One was “split shifts” — doing some work during the day and some at night.

This is the idea of leaving work at a reasonable time and doing more work when the kids go to bed. It was a very common strategy; almost half the logs had this at least one day a week.

Another was: Work remotely on occasion.

A lot of work doesn’t have to be done in the office and you can’t always concentrate there. Working from home a day or two a week makes people able to fit a life together better. There’s less commuting time and you can exercise during your lunch break without the problem of worrying about sweating after it.

And you say the logs suggest people should rethink their weekends and do some work during them.

It’s not essential. But more than half of the women I surveyed did some work on Sundays. The upside of working on the weekend is it gives you more space during your weekdays to do things like taking a yoga class or leaving work at a reasonable time.

Most of these women had flexibility in their work schedules and used it in creative ways. Is that possible for most women?

Having a six-figure job is often correlated with a reasonable amount of autonomy. I know a number of women who don’t make the criteria of the women I surveyed and would not have the same level of flexibility.

But anyone can use the strategy of looking at your time and figuring out how to fill it with things that are important to you. If you can’t leave work when you want to and you can’t do a family dinner, maybe you can do a family breakfast and control the time you leave for work.

How successful are you at making the most of your time?

I like to think I do a good job managing work full-time while spending quite a bit of time with each of my kids on various mom activities and some time with my husband, too, as well as making time to exercise and getting enough sleep — which is a real win with a five-month-old baby.

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